What Design Can Do: The food system, hungry for design

TED originally started out as a conference about the latest developments for Technology, Education and Design. Nowadays, it has got a much wider range as the many personal touching stories at the last TEDxAmsterdam conference proved. But we still want to bring you the latest innovations! And what better place to check out new developments in design than at one of the biggest design conferences in the world:What Design Can Do? Today, my report is about two designers at What Design Can Do who try to tackle one of the most important social systems: food.

What Design Can Do

Food as social glue
As our own Barbara Putman Cramer already told the audience of TEDxAmsterdam 2012: “Food is more than just fuel for your body”. And at WDCD there was also a lot of attention for how we design our foodsystem nowadays and especially: how we can design it a lot better.

Eating designer Marije Vogelzang is, as a professional, one of a kind. She herself actually thinks this is very strange as food is one for the most powerful things design can interact with as she told me in an interview for TEDxAmsterdam last year: “Designers always make things for humans, everything is focused on the human being. But the very thing that humans need to live their lives, food, they seem to forget about. If you start to work with food, you start to notice it’s connected to everything. It’s the glue between people, it’s how we interact with each other.”

Redesigning the way we deal with food is opening up possibilities to create new connections as Vogelzangs powerful project Eat Love Budapest proves. Leaving the audience of WDCD totally impressed, Eat Love Budapest showed a three day performance of Gypsy (Roma) women feeding visitors while telling the stories of their lives. Bringing together two strangers for the intimate act of sharing food and being fed, the project emphasizes the individuality and beauty inherent in the life of each person, including the nameless ones we may pass each day on the sidewalk, or groups that are considered outlaws like the Roma women.

Faked meat: food with a story and soul
The audience of WDCD also had the chance to take undergo a real ‘Vogelzang eating experience’. On a rainy rooftop of the Stadsschouwburg Marije Vogelzang organized a so-called Ponti-party: a barbeque where you could taste a Ponti, one of the faked meats Vogelzang designed in reaction to traditional meat substitutes which in trying to mimic meat only resolve in ‘soulless things’. To question this approach, Vogelzang invented new animals that could act as sources for faked meat, and thus I tasted the Ponti, a little creature that lives on volvanoes. It’s long and tastfull tail makes for perfect fingerfood. This background story, together with the great details in the fooddesign, makes the tasting an interesting but also a bit strange experience.

Marije Vogelzang Ponti

Ponti – Faked Meat by Marije Vogelzang

Cities are what they eat
Carolyne Steel, famous for her book Hungry City in which she traces food’s journey from land to urban table, also acknowledges the power of design for our foodsystem. Steel starts her talk by stating that food shapes the world around us, our cities and our daily lives: “Food is everywhere, but funny enough it’s too big to see it. We take it for granted that if we go into a shop or restaurant, there is going to be food there waiting for us, having magically come from somewhere“.

Because we take food for granted, we don’t see the impact it has on our environment. “Cities”, emphasizes Steel, “are like people. They are what they eat.” Via many examples of historical cities Steel presents how the way we deal with food impacts our environment: “If you look at the map of any city built before the industrial age, you can trace food coming in to it. You can actually see how it was physically shaped by food, by reading the names of the streets, which give you a lot of clues.”

Use food to create a better world
“So”, says Steel, “if food shapes the world, then use food as a tool to shape a better world! If we’re already living in Sitopia – from the ancient Greek word ‘sitos’ for food and ‘topos’ for place – a world shaped by food, and if we realize that we can use food as a design tool to shape the world differently, then we need to just ask yourself: What kind of landscape are we shaping when we buy boxed food? Do we eat with one another, or do we eat meals in a car? Do we value food or do we waste it? We should use food as a tool to question what kind of society we want.”

Further reading

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